Spacetime, Seen as a Digital Image, Already Fading

by rthieme on October 14, 2003

hawking Ever since I was taught in Philosophy 101 that space, time and causality, according to Immanuel Kant, are woven into our perceptual field, embedded in how we construct a virtual domain in which we live as if it is “out there,” I have felt like the proverbial gorilla that was taught to draw. Given paper and charcoal, the first thing he drew was the bars of his cage.

Spacetime and causality are the bars of our cage. Everything we see, we see through them.

I think of this when I read science fiction set in the future. The landscapes of alien planets or the dynamics of pan-galactic societies are often delineated with care but the bars of our cage – the perceptual field as our current culture constructs it – are projected into the minds of alien species or remote descendents as if they will see the world as we do.

What kind of future is that?

All of our technologies extend our senses, enhance cognition, and accelerate locomotion so when we examine their effects in relationship to our field of subjectivity, it becomes clear that the field is plastic. Our perspective flexes according to our cultural lenses and how our technologies enhance it. Spacetime may be intrinsic to our vision but is manifest differently depending on the machinery that shapes our vision.

The simple fact that we call it spacetime and not space and time reflects a shift in awareness due to relativity. But mostly we still speak of space and time as if they are distinct. Stephen Hawking thought that relativity would replace Newtonian “common sense” within a generation but it does not seem to have happened. With an effort we can flicker back and forth like a holographic image between a Newtonian grid and the dips and eddies of gravity-inflected spacetime but most of the time we don’t.

And would we notice if we did?

Wittgenstein once asked a student, “Why do you suppose that people believed for so many years that the sun orbits the Earth?”

The student said, “I guess because it looks that way.”

“Ah,” said Wittgenstein, “And what would it look like if the Earth orbited the sun?”

And what would it look like if we really understood that a three dimensional world is obsolete, that entanglement and nonlocality are not just nifty notions from contemporary physics but attributes of our subjective field too, that phenomena called paranormal are in fact normal because consciousness is present to itself non-locally everywhere and always, that our deep intentionality and how we focus our attention determine the world in which we live and how it looks and acts?

What would it look like if we really got that mystics described consciousness as the context of all human knowledge because they could see, see those bars, long before physicists acknowledged that consciousness inflects everything, everything in the universe?

When I try to capture that landscape in fiction, as I did in a short story called “Species, Lost in Apple-eating Time,” (published online by and at my web site, it becomes clear that a particular sensibility is required to understand it. So let me provide a description of the story instead.

The point of view of the narrator is that of consciousness itself. It is Big Self speaking to a particular manifestation or incarnation of itself, to one of the Little Selves that abound in the universe. Each Little Self is an aperture that has evolved as a distinct way to see things. Each form of sentient life constructs reality in and through the pattern it imposes on the world. That pattern is the form of reflexive self-awareness for each whether it is a species, a culture or a pan-galactic cloud of intelligent awareness.

When one particular manifestation of consciousness encounters another – when one species encounters another species, one culture another culture, one planetary society another planetary society – something emerges that was unpredictable from within either prior to the encounter. On a micro level, it’s like a marriage transforming two people over time. On a macro level, it’s like Hellenism encountering Hebraism and western civilization squeezing out of the fusion. On a supra-macro level, it’s what happens when planetary or pan-galactic civilizations encounter one another, looking like galaxies merging, changing into something else entirely.

That’s what the short story is about, the encounter of progressively larger and more extended fields of consciousness defined by their boundaries which in turn define the identities of the creature or culture or galaxy or aggregation of galaxies or at last the entire known universe. Inevitably the consciousness of the I/it or we/it that evolves expands and fills all spacetime and looks out through the million-eyed apertures of all sentient beings.

That’s why language in the story gets a little tricky. We do not have words that say what we or it will be in those progressive moments of self-awareness that include and transcend each prior state. We can only speak from within the illusory sense of self that the boundaries of the moment give us as an identity. Identity may be destiny but identity is also a moving image of a non-steady state.

At the end of the story, when self-consciousness has expanded throughout all of spacetime, we/it makes a frightening discovery. Through a tiny chink in the boundary which it believed to be the limit of the universe, we/it perceives vast dimensions of a multiverse the vision of which reveals that we/it is but a tiny bubble of foam in the froth of a fractal gel, not the totality of everything that exists.

That discovery is shocking, so overwhelming that we/it regresses to a child-like state, that is, to the primitive self-consciousness of a planetary civilization like what we have here at the moment, the barely-there awareness of a toddler learning to walk.

There is only one consciousness, of course, which is what the Big Consciousness is saying to the Little One as if it is a loving mentor talking to a child. All dialogue is the crosstalk of a multiverse talking to itself inside the arbitrary boundaries of its momentary configuration. Brahman talking to Atman, perhaps, Self to self.

So Big Self is reassuring one of its many particulate selves that even though the Little Self is back (it seems) where it started, the cosmic game of chutes-and-ladders will continue. What Little Self thought was millions of years of evolution was a nanosecond on a timeline far beyond its comprehension.

That story like this brief essay is of course nothing but a sketch of the bars of our cage in 21st century Midwest American English. A language game we play with each other, with ourselves or Self, like children in a nursery. Broad dark vertical lines drawn in charcoal on a sheet of paper pinned to an easel we can’t even see.

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